Aftermath of the Belfast Blitz

It looked like photographs of Spain or China or some town in the last war. Houses roofless, windowless, burnt out or burning, familiar landmarks gone and in their place vast craters and mounds of rubble. The desolation is indescribable. Thousands and thousands must be homeless, and as for the death toll, I shuddered to think horrors and ghastly injuries and death which have occured.

Clearing up after the Belfast blitz

Belfast was poorly prepared for the blitz compared with other British cities, few children had been evacuated, air raid shelters were sparse and defensive arrangements weak. Yet the the Harland and Wolf ship building yards and Northern Ireland’s strategic role in the battle of the Atlantic made it a likely target. When German bombers struck on the night of the 15th/16th April the effects were disproportionate. Over 900 people died. Over 50,000 homes were damaged leaving almost a quarter of the population homeless. Fire crews came from south of the border, from the neutral state of Ireland, and stayed for up to three days to help fight the fires.

Moya Woodside kept a diary for Mass Observation and recored the scenes in Belfast the day after the bombing, when thousands were homeless and many more wanted to find a way out of the city:

Passed railway station after lunch on my way to refugee committee, I have never seen anything like it. Thousands of people crowding in, cars, buses, carts and lorries, bathchairs, women pushing prams and go-karts with anything up to 6 or 8 children trailing along, belongings in blankets, pillowcases, baskets and boxes.

Coming back from the committee at 4.00 pm, found that the station doors had been shut. Crowds were waiting outside, mothers and children sitting on the pavement allround, constant stream of people arriving on foot and on buses, many looking exhausted. It was a heartbreaking sight. Went up to see some friends, living on road which leads out of town Such an exodus, on foot, in trams, lorries, trailers, cattle floats, bicycles, delivery vans, anything that would move would be utilised. Private cars streamed past laden with women and children, with matresses tied on top and all sorts of paraphenialia roped on behind. Hundreds were waiting at the main bus-stops. Anxiety on every face.

Came home to find a message awaiting me from one of our refugees asking – could I help to find somebody in the country for his wife and child. As he lived in a reported Blitz area, it sounded urgent, after supper I got on my bike again and resolved to try and get through to them. (They live across town about 4 miles away.) Found that the road had only just been opened and was being policed by military.

What awful scences meet me as I proceded. It looked like photographs of Spain or China or some town in the last war. Houses roofless, windowless, burnt out or burning, familiar landmarks gone and in their place vast craters and mounds of rubble. The desolation is indescribable. Thousands and thousands must be homeless, and as for the death toll, I shuddered to think horrors and ghastly injuries and death which have occured.

See Public Record Office of Northern Ireland T/3808/1. Second World War Northern Ireland has many more images and original records.

Italian convoy destroyed off Sfax

During the action H.M. Destroyer Mohawk was torpedoed and sank, and of her crew seven officers and 160 ratings were rescued. The other destroyers had no casualties and sustained only slight splinter damage. Owing to the approach of daylight it was not possible to wait and pick up enemy survivors

HMS Jervis, a flotilla leader destroyer, sister ship to HMS Kelly, won battle honours throughout the war.

Frederick Baker was on board HMS Mohawk on 15th April:

Whilst in the area of Malta our Flotilla was given another task and this was to try and stop the supply ships of the enemy reaching North Africa, which was now becoming the scene for the important battles between Montgomery [original account – Montgomery did not arrive until 1942] and Rommel. As you can imagine it was very dangerous for our ships to be caught at sea during daylight because of the superiority of the enemy planes, so we would leave Malta at dusk, do a wide sweeping search and rush back to Malta before dawn. On one of these occasions just as we were turning for home one of our ships sighted the enemy. We instantly engaged them in battle and after a short while we had successfully sunk the complete convoy of five troop or supply ships together with the three Escorts.

Unfortunately for me, my ship the Mohawk was hit by a torpedo which immobilised us causing considerable damage in the engine room and causing us to stop. We then became a sitting target and in a few moments we were hit again. This time we started to sink rapidly, so we had to abandon ship. After swimming away as fast as possible for a period, which seemed like hours, although in fact was only a few moments, I turned and saw the outline of the stern of the ship disappear under the water. I now became very frightened seeing many men in the water trying to cling to any debris they could find. I saw fairly close by one of our life rafts and struck out to reach it. I was recognised by some of my ship mates and was hauled on board. We then were miraculously spotted by one of our ships which was looking for survivors and I finished up on board HMS Nubian which coincidentally was the ship my elder brother [Charlie] was on, so it became a happy reunion for me.

Read Frederick Baker‘s account of his service with the Royal Navy.

HMS Jervis, sister ship to HMS Kelly, led one of the most successful convoy attacks of the war in the ‘Battle of the Tarigo Convoy’ on the night of the 15th. Also known as the ‘Action off Sfax’, decrypted Italian communications allowed the Royal Navy to intercept five merchant ships with military supplies and troops bound for Tripoli. Radar enabled a night ambush in which the entire force was destroyed:

Captain D. of the 14th Flotilla in H.M. Destroyer Jervis, with three other destroyers, intercepted an enemy convoy off the African coast between Sicily and Tripoli on the night of the 15th/ 16th April. The convoy consisted of two ships of about 5,000 tons laden with motor transport, an ammunition ship of about 4,000 tons, and two ships of about 3,000 tons, which were probably transports.

The escort was the Italian destroyer Luca Tarigo (1,648 tons, built 1928), and two of the Climene class destroyers (652 tons, built 1936-37). The entire enemy force is believed to be destroyed.

During the action H.M. Destroyer Mohawk was torpedoed and sank, and of her crew seven officers and 160 ratings were rescued. The other destroyers had no casualties and sustained only slight splinter damage. Owing to the approach of daylight it was not possible to wait and pick up enemy survivors.

From the Naval Situation Report for the week.

A fierce battle developed with the Italian navy. Smoke, explosions, shell splashes, burning ships and torpedoes confused the night sea. During the action, MOHAWK evaded a bow ramming from the lead German merchantman in the convoy. Just as the destroyer opened fire, a torpedo from the Italian destroyer Tarigo hit her just abreast of Y mounting on the starboard side. The whole of the stern from the superstructure aft was blown away and MOHAWK was awash as far as X mounting.

The crew of Y gun and the supply party were all killed. A and B guns continued firing on the merchantman and set her on fire. During this time, MOHAWK had been motionless in the water. Just as the destroyer made an attempt to get under way, a second torpedo arrived hitting portside between No.2 and No.3 Boiler Rooms. The No.3 boiler burst, scalding people on deck. The centre line of the upper deck split open allowing the torpedo tubes to fall into the engine room and crushed the watch below.

Immediately MOHAWK started to sink. All remaining hands were called to deck. Within a minute, she was listing heavy to port, rolling over until she lay on her side. There was no time to launch lifeboats but six Carleys managed to float clear. Most of the crew were left in the water as MOHAWK sank. Her stern touched the bottom with her fo’c’sle above the surface. NUBIAN picked up survivors while JANUS was ordered to sink the dying destroyer by firing 4.7-inch shells into her fo’c’sle. MOHAWK slipped beneath the surface and 41 men were lost with her.

HMS Mohawk had been in action in the earliest days of the war, in the first air raid on Britain.

Tank versus tank inside Tobruk

‘Driver advance, turn slightly left.’ My tank moved across to give this man protection. It was a stupid move, because by turning I presented the German tank gunners with a larger target, and they took full advantage of it. As we were turning back head-on to the enemy, the engine cut out, and we were left slightly ‘broadside on’. ‘She’s on fire, sir!’ shouted Adams, but he went on loading shells.

A German Mk IV tank, its turret blown off by a 25-pounder during the battle within Tobruk on the 14th April.

The German tanks that had broken through the perimeter of Tobruk on the night of the 13th had become disorientated in the darkness and had paused their assault. As dawn broke on the morning of the 14th they renewed their attack and it seemed that they would break through the line of artillery. Fortunately the few British tanks within Tobruk had come forward and were now poised to intervene. Rea Leakey was a tank commander with 1RTR:

Some forty German tanks were now clearly visible, and they were indeed busily engaged in destroying these guns. There would be nothing to stop them driving down to Tobruk harbour, only 3 miles away. We swung right into battle line.

I handed Milligan his cigarette, and told him to start shooting. There was no need for me to indicate the target to him. ‘Loaded,’ yelled Adams, and away went another solid shot, tearing at the thick enemy armour. The fumes of burning cordite made us cough, and our eyes water, and soon the turret was so thick with smoke that I could only just make out the figure of Adams as he loaded shell after shell into the breach. We were firing faster than ever before, and so were my other four cruiser tanks.

It must have been a minute before the Germans spotted us, and by then their tanks had received many hits from our shells. They appeared to panic, because they started to turn in all directions, many of them turned about and started moving back the way they had come.

But then they were on to us, and we could clearly see the flash of their guns. The tank to my left was hit several times, and ‘brewed up’. I saw some of the crew bale out. Then another of my valuable cruisers went up in flames, and there were only three of us left. I noticed one man of this crew dragging himself along the ground, badly wounded, and machine-gun bullets were hitting all round him. I felt I had to give him cover.

‘Driver advance, turn slightly left.’ My tank moved across to give this man protection. It was a stupid move, because by turning I presented the German tank gunners with a larger target, and they took full advantage of it. As we were turning back head-on to the enemy, the engine cut out, and we were left slightly ‘broadside on’. ‘She’s on fire, sir!’ shouted Adams, but he went on loading shells.

At the same moment Milligan’s head fell back against my knees, and looking down I saw that a shell had pierced the armour and removed most of his chest. He was dead. ‘Bale out,’ I yelled, and, as I pulled myself out of the turret, what few shells we had left in the turret started exploding, and the flames were already licking round my feet.

The German tanks were beaten off, and those that could retreated out of Tobruk. Read the whole account of the engagement in Leakey’s Luck: A Tank Commander with Nine Lives, in which he describes how bayonets were used to deal with the German infantry who didn’t surrender.

John Edmondson wins the Victoria Cross

Lieutenant Mackell led six men forward, including Corporal John Edmondson. They came under fire almost as soon as they left their trenches. Edmondson was hit by machine gun fire in the stomach and neck but kept going, bayoneting two Germans in a furious assault that had the Germans fleeing …

John Edmondson won the Victoria Cross with a furious bayonet charge during the defence of Tobruk.

Easter Sunday 13th April 1941 saw a sustained attack by tanks and infantry on the besieged forces of Tobruk. The greater part of the hastily assembled garrison, the Australian 9th Division had been civilians only six months before. They had no anti tank weapons so the troops on the outer perimeter were instructed to allow tank to pass through them and not attract attention to their positions. They were then to deal with the infantry assault following the tanks.

Although they were defending positions that had previously been prepared by the Italians, and further re-inforced with wire and mines, the anti tank ditch on the perimeter had filled with drifting sand. Some forty German tanks were able to cross the perimeter late on the 13th and advance towards the town of Tobruk. Soon the the forward Observation Posts for the artillery found themselves surrounded by tanks. The gun commanders heard the instructions “Target me, Target me” from the OPs as they called in gunfire on their own positions in order to hit the tanks.

Meanwhile groups of the Australian infantry left their positions to deal with German infantry at the perimeter wire. Lieutenant Mackell led six men forward, including Corporal John Edmondson. They came under fire almost as soon as they left their trenches. Edmondson was hit by machine gun fire in the stomach and neck but kept going, bayoneting two Germans in a furious assault that had the Germans fleeing:

On the night of 13th-14th April, 1941, a party of German infantry broke through the wire defences of Tobruk, and established themselves with numerous machine guns, mortars and field pieces. Led by an officer, Corporal Edmondson and five privates carried out a bayonet charge upon them under heavy fire. Although wounded in the neck and stomach Corporal Edmondson not only killed one of the enemy, but went to the assistance of his officer, who was attacked by a German from behind while bayoneting another who had seized him about the legs. Despite his wounds, from which he later died, Corporal Edmondson succeeded in killing these two Germans also, thus undoubtedly saving his officer’s life. Throughout the operation he showed outstanding resolution and leadership, and conspicuous bravery.

The citation for the Victoria Cross awarded to Corporal John Hurst Edmondson.

In a later account Lieutenant Mackell stated that Edmondson had gone on to bayonet two more Germans after dealing with the two attacking him. Edmondson died of his wounds very shortly afterwards.

For more on John Edmondson see the Australian War Memorial.

Falling back in Greece

One morning three bombs landed not twenty yards from the hole we were crouching in, covering us with filth, my tent was torn in three places by jagged pieces of bomb splinters. Forty yards from my tent a huge bomb tore a hole in the ground twenty feet deep and seventy feet wide. After dropping their bombs they fly low and machine-gun us because we have no planes to chase them-off – the sky is THEIRS.

German artillery during the invasion of Greece, 1941

British forces in Libya had been weakened because so many troops had been diverted to support the Greeks. The German invasion of Greece, also to support their Italian allies, was progressing quickly. The simultaneous invasion of Yugoslavia enabled them to outflank the Greek and British forces. Captain K.M. Oliphant was with the 2/3 Field Regiment of the Royal Artillery high in the Greek mountains, which he described as ‘making the highlands of Scotland look like a plain’. His personal diary did not manage to keep track of individual days during this period:

News comes that the position on our flanks is not good – we are to withdraw to a stronger line – we are still confident. The withdrawal takes place under cover of the darkness, and we take up our new positions.

It is still snowing. The Germans move down and attack again – here they employ the full weight of their Air Force against us – we suffer their dive bombing and machine gunning and await the arrival of the R.A.F. – we are still confident. Day after day the German Air force bomb and machine gun us – a terrible experience – where is the R.A.F? surely there has been no mismanagement – our confidence is shaken – as we suffer every morning and every evening these terrifying raids – we reach the stage where we long for night and quietness – all day is a nightmare, and the hours of daylight are so long.

No British are in the sky – what has gone wrong?. Men begin to ask ‘Are we to be sacrificed to the German Air Force?’

On land we hurl their attacks back in spite of their overwhelming numbers – but we can’t hold on against their Air Force. One morning three bombs landed not twenty yards from the hole we were crouching in, covering us with filth, my tent was torn in three places by jagged pieces of bomb splinters. Forty yards from my tent a huge bomb tore a hole in the ground twenty feet deep and seventy feet wide. After dropping their bombs they fly low and machine-gun us because we have no planes to chase them-off – the sky is THEIRS.

News comes of a further withdrawal – we ask what has happened – surely not another Dunkirk; – our Unit is allotted the rearguard role – we stand and fight to cover the withdrawal of the rest of the force.

See TNA WO 217/33

The siege of Tobruk begins

Then one came, sensationally straight at us, dived to a few feet off the ground and went clean through our position with machine-guns blazing. We filled him up with machine gun bullets and smoke came pouring from him as he staggered and side-slipped, regained control and disappeared over the brow of the hill. This we claimed as ours without dispute.

A Junkers 87 dive bomber brought down near Tobruk.

The German forces finally surrounded the port of Tobruk, which had been captured from the Italians on the 22nd January, on the 11th April. Defended by around 14,000 men, mainly from the 9th Australian Division, the port became the the scene of sustained fighting throughout 1941. The opening phases saw the Germans continuing to break down the defences with air attacks, as Kenneth Rankin had already experienced:

11th April 1941 – Good Friday

Worked hard levelling the guns and getting things ready, all morning. At lunch time we were in the thick of it again and Junkers dive-bombers appeared all over the sky. We engaged one by shrapnel control, but our fuse was too short. Then one came, sensationally straight at us, dived to a few feet off the ground and went clean through our position with machine-guns blazing. We filled him up with machine gun bullets and smoke came pouring from him as he staggered and side-slipped, regained control and disappeared over the brow of the hill. This we claimed as ours without dispute.

A Hurricane came tearing in, shot one down, banked steeply and pounced on another which he shot down in flames – we cheered madly. Then four Messerschmitt 109s appeared from nowhere and all went for our lone Hurricane, which put up a terrific dog fight, but turned tail and rushed for the aerodrome with smoke coming out, but still under control. We engaged the Me.109 which had been chasing the Hurricane and put in some effective bursts, the result of which could not be properly observed owing to clouds of dust. 153 battery shot one down in the harbour too – so it was a great party.

Unfortunately they got a supply ship in the harbour, which the Navy made desperate efforts to save. A fair amount of artillery fire was going on, but we were beginning to get used to this, and hardly noticed it – like trains running along the bottom of a garden.

See Kenneth Rankin: Top Hats in Tobruk

Escape back to Eygpt

The enemy tanks must have decided to outflank the pass in case it was blown up, or we were thought to have an anti-tank capacity. Most of us had had little sleep for days and our driver was no exception. With the severity of the sandstorm he could only see by opening the split windscreen and pushing up his goggles. I looked at his eyes and they seemed like two red balls.

A British army truck pulling a medium artillery gun

In North Africa the tables had turned. After spectacular advances and remarkable successes against the Italian forces that outnumbered them, the British Army now found itself retreating in some disarray.

Les Vernon was with the same Heavy Anti Aircraft unit as Kenneth Rankin but was now in a a rear guard unit covering the retreat back to Egypt. Other troops passed them before they began their own retreat:

Most of the time there was a sandstorm blowing, and we saw the now all too familiar sight of the army streaming back, twenty-five pounders, tanks, water trucks, etc., though for some reason bombing of the road by the enemy was confined to night attacks. The situation became more confused with every hour, with rumours and counter rumours. …

The plan as we were given to understand was that we could defend the pass until it was blown up, then blow up our guns and climb down the 300 foot escarpment to pick up our trucks, which would previously have gone down with our kit and the married men.

One night we awoke to hear the sound of clanking enemy tank tracks carried on the wind. The next day our R.A.S.C. drivers were disinclined to stay with us and threatened to leave. A Lewis gun was therefore mounted over them and they were warned that they would be shot if they attempted to leave. Soon after, contact with the pass and everyone else having been lost, we realised that our comrades in Tobruk were either beseiged or captured. It was decided to leave as planned.

The Bedford with me in it, was at the rear and had a Lewis gun mounted in the back, together with a quantity of beer in straw cases, chocolate and toothpaste, salvaged from the abandoned N.A.A.F.I. With the heat, jolting, and stamping about, the floor of the truck soon became a sticky mess of straw, chocolate and toothpaste.

The sandstorm that had resumed and shrouded our escape grew in intensity. The enemy tanks must have decided to outflank the pass in case it was blown up, or we were thought to have an anti-tank capacity. Most of us had had little sleep for days and our driver was no exception. With the severity of the sandstorm he could only see by opening the split windscreen and pushing up his goggles. I looked at his eyes and they seemed like two red balls.

So we decided it was time to relieve him, and in the back of the truck he at once went to sleep, still jolting about in the sticky mess. When the change round of drivers took place we noticed that oil was spurting from the rear axle, and all doubted whether we would get on much further.

Through a gap in the sandstorm we glimpsed an Italian C.R.42 aircraft fly across the road, but the sand blanketed us again and he did not return. While we waited an ambulance stopped to see if we needed help, and then pressed on towards a Guards armoured unit that we had passed. We later heard a crump and learned subsequently that the C.R.42 had bombed the ambulance and all the occupants had been killed.

See Kenneth Rankin Lest We Forget : Fifty Years On

Under air attack in Tobruk

Each gun got so much dust around that nothing could be seen outside the gun pits, and very little could be heard. We had difficulty in stopping them shooting – they went on like maniacs. Most of us ducked in the Command Post when they crashed away at low elevation just over our heads. Sergeant Bennet got too much in front of his gun,-and got his hair singed at the back.

An anti -aircraft gun at Tobruk, surrounded by old ammunition boxes filled with stone.

As British forces fell back from the newly launched German attack in Libya, the port of Tobruk came under sustained air attack. It was not yet completely surrounded but all non essential personnel were being evacuated and defensive positions were being established. Kenneth Rankin was with a Heavy Anti Aircraft battery:

9th April 1941 – Heavy Fire

A raid started just before dawn, and all kinds of guns went into action. Then a reconnaissance plane came over at 14,000 feet and the H.A.A. blazed off furiously. The harbour was full of shipping. Six planes travelled along the coastline, which I identified as Dorniers and so reported to Gun Operations Room, who replied that they were Hurricanes! By this time we were shooting at them, and then G.O.R. ordered us to carry on.

Immediately afterwards three Messerschmitts came up, and again we went into action; one of them was shot down. Hurricanes went into action and were buzzing about over our heads. Our sergeants were nearly all deaf, and poor Sergeant Davies had his ear-drum bleeding. Sergeant West had tooth-ache.

Each gun got so much dust around that nothing could be seen outside the gun pits, and very little could be heard. We had difficulty in stopping them shooting – they went on like maniacs. Most of us ducked in the Command Post when they crashed away at low elevation just over our heads. Sergeant Bennet got too much in front of his gun,- and got his hair singed at the back.

See Kenneth Rankin: Top Hats in Tobruk

Low level bombing attack on Ijmuiden

On two successive days formations of Blenheims attacked the iron and steel works at Ijmuiden, some of the aircraft coming down to 100 feet; direct hits were obtained on buildings which were seen to be severely damaged; the power house, ships and barges in the docks and a railway bridge were also attacked.

One of the dramatic photographs taken during the low level attack on Ijmuiden
with bombs falling centre frame.

On two successive days formations of Blenheims attacked the iron and steel works at Ijmuiden, some of the aircraft coming down to 100 feet; direct hits were obtained on buildings which were seen to be severely damaged; the power house, ships and barges in the docks and a railway bridge were also attacked. Other aircraft, unable to locate shipping, bombed military objectives in France and Denmark; some successful results were obtained, including direct hits on two goods trains at Vemb and a bridge under construction near Ringkobing.

From the Air Situation Report for the week.

 

Undated image of another low level attack in the area, against shipping.
Low level oblique taken during an attack on an enemy convoy off the Dutch coast by Bristol Blenheim Mark IVs of No, 2 Group. Eight vessels sailing between Ijmuiden and the Hague were intercepted by aircraft drawn from Nos. 105 and 139 Squadrons RAF. Although hits were scored on the ships, 3 Blenheims were shot down and 2 crash-landed on return to their base. Here, bombs can be seen narrowly missing MV DELAWARE, a Danish-registered vessel as aircraft attack at low level. The photograph was taken from the mid-upper gun turret of another Blenheim.

 

 

Disaster in Piraeus Harbour

From neighboring houses came sounds of maids screaming, and the wild cries of a macaw. Nothing in all the sound effects of catastrophe in Hollywood films could match the crashing thunder, the crackling individual blasts under the greater roar, the howl of the dogs and human shrieks.

The Clan Fraser burning in Piraeus harbour on the 6th April 1941, before the massive explosion.

Mussolini had brought Italy into the war in the hope of quick and easy victories, invading Greece from Albania and Egypt from Libya. In both theatres he was humiliated, with Italian forces being forced back and suffering large defeats. Now Hitler decided that he had to intervene to rescue them. Rommel had already arrived in North Africa.

Then on 6th April 1941 Germany invaded both Greece and Yugoslavia. The campaign began with a bombing raid on Piraeus harbour where British ships were unloading:

Wakened at 4 am with a blast of ungodly sound and weird blue light. Our casement windows blew open and we were literally shaken from our beds.

The whole southern sky flamed over Piraeus, an unearthly brilliance that silhouetted the calm Parthenon in stark ghostly beauty. The continuing explosion left Peggy and me with wits shaken, speechless and a sense of the world’s end.

From neighboring houses came sounds of maids screaming, and the wild cries of a macaw. Nothing in all the sound effects of catastrophe in Hollywood films could match the crashing thunder, the crackling individual blasts under the greater roar, the howl of the dogs and human shrieks.

Later we learned that the eleven o’clock raid last night had struck a tanker which flamed, setting fire in time to a ship loaded with TNT. A British destroyer then had entered the harbor and had tried to tow the munitions ship out to sea. The tow line broke three times.

But the destroyer got the freighter outside the breakwater before it exploded – taking those brave British boys and their ship to destruction with it. Harbor installations, buildings and homes in a rim around the sea were flattened but the city in general was spared. The Greeks will never forget the sacrifice of those British seamen.

See Laird Archer Athens Journal, 1940-1941: The Graeco-Italian and the Graeco-German Wars and the German Operation.

Archer was mistaken in believing that a British destroyer had been blown up towing the ship out of the harbour – the official record states:

There was a heavy raid on the Piraeus by 10 German aircraft on the night of the 6th/7th which put the port completely out of action for several days. About a dozen mines were laid in the harbour, but H.M. Ships Ajax and Calcutta successfully made their way out. The s.s. Clan Fraser, 7,529 tons, with 350 tons of T.N.T. and a lighter alongside her with a further 100 tons, both blew up. Many fires were caused ashore and in ships in the harbour.

From the Naval Situation Report for the week see TNA CAB 66/16/6

See also Merchant Navy Officers for more on the Clan ships:

On the evening of 6th April, she was struck by three bombs during an air raid, one hitting her forward, one amidships and one aft. Seven crewmembers were killed. The remainder evacuated the ship and for five hours CLAN FRASER burned, glowing red from bulwarks to water line, she then blew up with a tremendous explosion. The explosion did tremendous damage to the Port of Piraeus and other shipping, together with shaking buildings 15 miles inland.

Then in 2016 I was contacted by Nicholas John Varmazis, from Toronto:

Here is his recollection of the “Clan Fraser Explosion”, written 75 years later in October 2016, when he saw the Clan Fraser story on the Internet:

On April 06, 1941 Germany declared war and invaded Greece. At that time my family was living in a rented house in Drapetsona, (Δραπετσωνα) a suburb of Piraeus. Around noon of that day the Air Raid sirens sounded, but we did not bother to run to the shelter, since we saw that it was just a single German plane flying over the harbour, apparently taking photos.

That same night, at around 9 the air raid sirens sounded again and a few minutes later we heard the sound of planes coming. Everybody run to the nearest air raid shelter, which was the basement of a bakery shop at the intersection of Kanelopoulou and Raidestou Str. (Ethn. Antistasis & Kontopoulou). That building is still there today, 75 years later, ruined and abandoned.

This time it was a real air raid and there was no comparison in ferocity to previous air raids by the Italian Air Force. We could hear the explosions of the falling bombs and the frightening wailing sound of the sirens of the diving Stukas. The building was shaking, women and children were crying and everybody was terrified. The bombing lasted for approximately 2 hours and then there was absolute silence. We did not know if the air raid was over, because the sirens never sounded the end of the raid.

Little by little people started leaving the shelter and heading for home. I did not go with my parents, but I joined a bunch of other adventurous kids of my age (I was 12) and we walked to the harbour, (approximately 0.5km) to “watch the show” from the top of the bluffs, over the Vasiliadou Quay (Ακτη Βασιλειαδου), 50m from the waterfront.

The spectacle was horrifying! Tens of ships were engulfed in flames with their sirens waling like humans. There was no fire fighting activity except around one burning ship that was trapped underneath a huge loading crane. (I read later that the ship was named Clan Fraser). A tug boat and other Navy ships were trying to free and tug the ship away, but they soon realized that this was impossible and finally they gave up. We saw a ship blowing up after hitting a mine. Two other navy ships managed to get away and leave the harbour. (I read years later that these were the British destroyers Achilles and Ajax, famous from the battle of River La Plata, near Montevideo, where they chased and forced the sinking of the German battleship Admiral Graf von Spee.)

In our innocence we were all just enjoying the spectacle. Around midnight a bunch of policemen and other men in uniform arrived and chased us kids away and also went to all the adjacent houses telling people to evacuate and move as far as they could, because there was going to be a big explosion.

We left the harbour and returned to our homes. I lied by telling my parents that I was at the bomb shelter looking for them, but I still received a spanking from my father. I did not dare to tell my parents about the expected explosion.

We all went to bed and then, a couple of hours later, we were all awakened by a tremendous deafening sound. The doors and windows were all blown out. A 2m long chicken coup that was in our yard landed right on top of me, while I was sleeping, but fortunately, all that I suffered were some minor scratches. We all run out on the street in our nightwear and found out that all our neighbours were out too. We could see the flames from the burning ships, less than 1km away. There was a real pandemonium and nobody could explain what was happening. I tried to tell them about the burning ship and the expected explosion as told by the policemen, but nobody was listening.

Our house as well as most of the other houses were ruined and uninhabitable. So my father decided that we should collect as many clothes as we could carry and try to reach some relatives living in Nikaia (Νικαια), nearly 2hrs walk from our home. That was the last time (for many years) that I saw the house where I was borne and lived all my life until then.

We started walking and on the way we turned around from time to time to see the flames from the burning harbour, visible in the horizon. We also heard another two or three explosions, not as big as the first one. Another strange thing happened on the way. There were thousands of foreign banknotes falling from the sky, like confetti, all around us. We collected as many as we could and filled our pockets. As we read in the papers a few days later, these were Turkish banknotes printed in England and destined for Turkey on board Clan Fraser.

We eventually reached Nikaia and stayed with our relatives for 3 days. Then on April 10, 1941 we moved to Zografou (Ζωγραφου), a suburb of Athens, where I lived until September of 1958, when I emigrated to Canada. So, in some way the Clan Fraser explosion changed drastically my life!!!

Piraeus on the morning of 7th April 1941, after the bombing and explosions. (Australian War Memorial)
Piraeus on the morning of 7th April 1941, after the bombing and explosions. (Australian War Memorial)